Some books I read in 2021 (3) – ‘The Illusions of Postmodernism’

The appearance of widespread support among organisations describing themselves as Marxist for demands that don’t have a material basis – I’m referring to the claims of some trans activists that men can become women simply by declaring it – has come as has surprise to many, although perhaps it should not.

In attempting to explain this, those Marxists who are rooted in a materialist understanding of the world have referred to these organisations’ orientation to students, who are a strong constituency of the broad movement supporting this particular claim.  In effect, it is argued that these organisations that should know better do not want to alienate potential recruits and presumably don’t see the issue as important enough to risk doing so.

They are acutely aware that even to raise any question invites denunciation as a transphobe and calls for what is now called cancelling – ‘trans rights are not a debate’ is not only a slogan.  This censorious approach does not sit well with Marxists, for whom this is simply not an approach we can afford to take even if we wanted to, which we don’t.

It is all very well for trans activists to refuse to debate, or refuse to argue for their views and address challenges; their demands have had access in corporate boardrooms and HR departments, and in the corridors of government departments, judiciary and university administrations.  This is a more than inviting substitute.  For Marxists this is impossible – our politics are based on the self-emancipation of working people and this isn’t going to come from within these locations.

Of course, a more interesting question is how this constituency came to support these views in the first place, although the book reviewed doesn’t really focus on this.  I’ve rather read it with a view as to how these views, that should be so alien, have been so easily embraced by sections of the Left.

Reading Terry Eagleton’s ‘The Illusions of Postmodernism’, published twenty-five years ago, makes a number of observations about its target that help inform this inquiry.

So, in his preface, he defends himself against the anticipated criticism that he is placing himself on the same side as conservatives, which has often been an argument of some on the Left, thus the examples are numerous.  As one example we have Brexit, which supposedly must be supported because the EU is capitalist, and big business supports it, so we can’t be on the same side as it.  Of course, this also requires a certain set of blinkers.

Eagleton agrees that ‘radicals and conservatives, after all, necessarily share some ground in common’, which explains resistance to postmodernism and its progeny, including the type of claim above.  ‘Radicals, for example, are traditionalists., just as conservatives are; it is simply that they adhere to entirely different traditions.’ (page ix) 

The Left has lots of ‘antis’ – anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism and anti-austerity.  That none of them necessarily entails socialism gets missed, so much so that some organisations name or define themselves in these terms, forgetting that there are reactionary movements that endorse each.  Ironically, many ‘social justice’ demands today are not even anti-capitalist.

He thus notes that postmodernist ideas (and their offspring) can be subversive but not transformative; positive content is effectively evacuated and the power to change does not arise, even if it were contemplated, from reality but from moral outrage against the oppressive power of language, hence the need to police it.

‘Some, one might predict, would assume that the dominant system was entirely negative – that nothing within this seamlessly non-contradictory whole could by definition be of value – and turn from it in dismay to ideologise some numinous Other.’ (page 7)

Many on the Left have long thought of capitalism as in terminal decline, in continual crisis with workers equally as long being exhorted to be angry and outraged.  Capitalism has no contradictions, otherwise it would not simply be utterly reactionary and, faced with a simple negative, the positive becomes a socialism that is not grounded in capitalism but has its own foundations.  Since these are uncontaminated by capitalism they are uncontaminated by reality and must rest on purely ethical claims – as do the claims of trans activists that men can become women and that they must be supported because they are oppressed: ‘only the oppressed know their oppression’ so no need to be ‘labouring away in the British museum’, as Eagleton explains, in order to understand it. (page 5)

In responding to postmodernist claims that it is opposed to dogma – and Marxism is always characterised by opponents as such – Eagleton notes that ‘one of the commonest forms of postmodernist dogma is an intuitive appeal to ‘experience’, which is absolute because it cannot be gainsaid.’ (page 67)  This, of course, also means that anyone else’s experience, of postmodernists for example, cannot be challenged either.

The low level of class struggle facilitates the alternative arising out of capitalism being judged on purely moral grounds because a real mass struggle will contain lots of impurities (which of course Marxists will want to combat) so will not therefore withstand any test based on a perfectly moral yardstick.

We know this from the experience Marxist organisations continually hark back to – the Russian revolution.  The issue here is not to excuse or condemn its failings but to recognise it is not a great example for today and that these failings were not moral but material and political.  It wasn’t ripe for socialism, particularly if left on its own – and it was left on its own – and given this it was inevitable that something other than working class self-emancipation would rise to take over.

This is what has happened with opposition to racism and sexual oppression etc.  Without a working class movement which can embrace them and offer a totally different system, within which their needs can be expressed, their demands are enveloped by politics compatible with capitalism.  All the rhetoric and ‘Theory’ is mainly camouflage.

So, the autonomous and rational individual subject that is the basis of liberalism is taken to another level when such an individual can determine the sexual nature of their own body.  It is claimed by some transgender activists that their gender identity is innate and not an internal processing of external culture, but this is similar to ‘any brand of epistemological anti-realism, it consistently denies the possibility of describing the way the world is, and just as consistently finds itself doing so.’ (page 28)

Hence, some trans activists deny the world has caused their gender dysphoria but just as consistently demand that this world can and must ameliorate it.

As Eagleton notes ‘at a certain point in the 1970s, all concern with biology became ‘biologistic’ overnight . . . Properly afraid of a vulgar reductionism, some strands of postmodernism responded to this danger by the rather more violent tactic of erasing the biological, and occasionally the economic, altogether.   In speaking materially about culture, it began to speak culturally about the material.’ (page 48)

‘What culture you inhabit is not definitive of your humanity, in the sense that beings of different cultures are not creatures of different species.  To be some kind of cultural being is indeed essential to our humanity, but not to be any particular kind.  There are no non-cultural human beings, not because culture is all there is to human beings, but because culture belongs to their nature.’ (page 101)

Eagleton takes up the sibling of race and gender as these are perceived by some postmodernists, which is class.  But ‘classism’ is not something Marxists have ever complained about, unlike racism and sexism.

‘’Classism, on this analogy, would seem to be the sin of stereotyping people in terms of social class, which taken literally would mean that it was politically incorrect to describe Donald Trump as a capitalist. Socialists, however, churlishly refuse to subscribe to the orthodoxy that social class is a bad thing, even though they are out to abolish it.  For socialism, the working class is an excellent thing, since without it one could never usurp the power of capital.’

‘On the surface, the class–race–gender triplet appears convincing enough.  Some people are oppressed because of their gender, some on account of their race, and others by virtue of their class.  But this is a deeply misleading formulation.  For it is not as though some individuals display certain characteristics known as ‘class’, which then result in their oppression.  On the contrary, Marxists have considered that to belong to a social class just is to be oppressed, or to be an oppressor.  Class is in this sense a wholly social category, as being female or having a certain skin pigmentation is not.’ (page 57)

‘The oppression of women is a matter of gender, which is wholly a social construct; but women are oppressed as women, which involves the kind of body one happens to have.  Being bourgeois or proletarian, by contrast, is not biological at all.’ (page 58)

Some of these ideas are obvious for Marxists, which points not to explaining how easily some Marxist organisations have adopted idealist constructs of woman, but how difficult it should be.  Any explanation should therefore entail how this departure is not really unique and surely a result of some general malaise.

So, to come back to what I have called the moral basis of much of the politics practiced by some on the Left; Eagleton asks a question that returns us to social reality – ‘Is the capitalist system progressive?’

He responds – ‘The only reasonable answer is a firm yes and no.  On the one hand, Marx’s praise for capitalism is surely well justified.  Capitalism, as he never tires of arguing, is the most dynamic, revolutionary, transgressive social system known to history, one which melts barriers, deconstructs oppositions, pitches diverse life-forms promiscuously together and unleashes an infinity of desire . . . As the greatest accumulation of productive forces which history has ever witnessed, it is capitalism which for the first time makes feasible the dream of a social order free of want and toil.’

‘All of this, of course, is bought at the most terrible cost.  This dynamic, exuberant release of potential is also one long unspeakable human tragedy, in which powers are crippled and squandered, lives crushed and blighted, and the great majority of men and women condemned to fruitless labour for the profit of a few.  Capitalism is most certainly a progressive system, and is just as certainly nothing of the kind.’ (page 61)

For a long time, many on the Left have sought to overcome their marginality by relying on capitalist crises to radicalise workers, but through a moral critique unhinged from how that capitalism works.  The key question for them was creation of a revolutionary party, but neither capitalist crises or moral indignation will create it, so it becomes as idealistic a construct as postmodern ideas of social justice that look to other agencies, if they look at all.  When they do they especially look to the state.

Today some of the Left endorses claims that are utterly unrelated to reality, doing so because these appear as demands of the oppressed, forgetting that the working class is not the agent of change because it is particularly oppressed; others have been much more oppressed and much more numerous.   Unfortunately, an ungrounded moralistic alternative is very unlikely to be accepted by the working class and especially its more irrational claims.  This Left will make another mistake, and if we have learnt anything, it is that it always pays for them.

Some books I read in 2021 (2) – ‘Market Maoists’

The rapid economic growth of China to one of the world’s leading powers has prompted debate on how this was achieved, from its extreme poverty to the prodigious development associated with its insertion into the world capitalist system.  This book traces the evolution of the earlier relations between China under Mao and the capitalist world, before the explicit economic reorientation and while still proclaiming adherence to the revolutionary transformation to socialism.

The fact that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) still proclaims socialism, and that before the Deng Xiaoping era China had relations with the capitalist world, means that the story is not a simple one, hence the debate on whether China today is capitalist or imperialist.  This book doesn’t directly address these issues but seeks to provide the story of the early Maoist relations with the capitalist world, starting with the semi-underground trading arrangements set up by the CCP in British ruled Hong Kong in 1938, years before the conquest of political power nationally in 1949.

In the first full year of Maoist rule roughly 74 per cent of trade was with capitalist countries; two years later this had fallen to 21 per cent, with the share taken by the Soviet Union etc. dramatically increasing.  Like the experience of the USSR surveyed in the previous post, China sought to trade its farm goods for advanced technology and equipment, plus chemicals and fuels, in order to build its industry.

As is well known, the 1949 revolution did not initially involve state takeover of all private capitalist enterprises and the Maoists were acutely conscious of their lack of economic experience, which had been limited to relatively remote rural regions.  CCP policy involved repeatedly contacting foreign capitalists to explore trading opportunities, and the book records their meeting in Tianjin with the American Chamber of Commerce to discuss cooperation, although with no success.

This policy was very much encouraged by Stalin, with the Maoist leadership supporting trade with Japan despite the very recent and brutal war against their occupation.  This and later engagements were far from smooth.  For Stalin, geopolitical considerations of defending the Soviet Union were paramount while the Chinese sought to expose latent contradictions between Japan and the US; something which was to become a recurring theme as the US attempted to isolate the new regime and China attempted to wriggle free. Other capitalist states showed themselves to be more open to acceptance of it by way of developing trading opportunities.

The eruption of the Korean war set back Mao’s plans; when meeting with Stalin for the first and only time he told him that “China needs a period of 3–5 years of peace”.  Their negotiations yielded a new Sino-Soviet Treaty in 1950 but relationships were not particularly warm as Stalin kept Mao hanging about Moscow for a second meeting in order to show him who was boss.

Most welcome was a loan from the Soviet Union, its need apparent from the government budget in the first three months of the new year being nearly balanced, having been in deficit by nearly two-thirds in the previous year.

The importance given to trade was made clear through the decision to break the unwritten rule – that commercial work should remain in the hand of trusted CCP members – and employ technical experts from the old Nationalist regime.  The new Korean war-time conditions meant a return to clandestine trading activities, with the CIA estimating that “China was smuggling between two hundred and three hundred tons of strategic materials from Hong Kong to mainland China every night.” (page 82)

The launch of the “three Anti Campaign” targeting corruption, waste and obstructionism in 1951 was followed in 1952 by the “Five Anti Campaign” which mobilised the population against China’s corrupt bourgeoisie.  Native private capitalists would no longer be protected as the CCP consolidated its control of the economy.

These campaigns also involved targeting the type of individuals that the Party wanted to recruit to agencies set up to assist its development of trade with capitalist countries, a problem that was to recur again, requiring the support of leading sections of the bureaucracy for the state bodies involved and their work. Zhou Enlai told the Chinese delegation to an international conference in Moscow that “You must make friends widely, don’t just make friends with progressives; make reactionary friends, too.” (page 89). The US opposed the conference but the Chinese delegation were able to sign its first contract with the British, while the CIA lamented that “our side can be expected to sustain loss after loss.” (page 91)

The CCP showed its elastic use of Marxist categories, developing “a new narrative for China’s place in global markets, one that centred on the theme of trading with capitalists as an anti-imperialist struggle.” (page 99).

In this vein, the end of the Korean war in 1953 was received by China as an opportunity to undermine the US blockade and use the Geneva Conference, organised to settle the peace at the end of hostilities, to enhance the new line of “peace in economics”.  In that year the country’s volume of trade reached its highest level since 1930; exchange with the capitalist countries growing by 29 per cent on the previous year. China however was still not important globally, so this didn’t prevent its share of capitalist countries’ trade falling relatively as world exchange soared.

On the back of this the CCP elaborated the concept of the “five principles of peaceful coexistence”, which entailed containing American imperialism and hastening the demise of capitalism.  Meanwhile relations with other capitalist countries such as Britain and France could be improved.

In 1958 China opened its first significant trade exhibition in Canton from April 25 to May 25 hosting 1,200 people from nineteen countries.  Later in the year Britain decided unilaterally to eliminate the differential (greater restrictions compared to the Soviet Union) in controls on exports to China, followed within weeks by a host of other countries including France, West Germany, Italy and Holland.

Not long after this Mao launched the Great Leap Forward, by which he hoped to mobilise the population to overcome existing material constraints and rapidly accelerate the industrialisation and modernisation of the country.  It was a project that seemed directly to contradict the foundations of the Marxist doctrine he claimed to hold, which recognised that the underdevelopment of the forces of production could not be overcome by sheer will.  In the event, they couldn’t, and the initiative failed in its objective, including that of catching up with Britain in fifteen years.

Part of it was meant to involve a key role for trade with foreign capitalism.  Like the Soviet Union, taxation of agriculture – in effect the peasant – was to provide the resources to feed the growth of the working class which would also allow for increased trade with foreign capitalism.  Unfortunately, this period saw political considerations lead to a major spat with Japan and a fall in trade until the early 1960s.

This, however, was only one aspect of the harmful effects of the Great Leap Forward on the conduct of trade policy.  Decentralisation of decision making led to import orders from capitalist markets in the first six months exceeding by twice the ministry budget for the whole year.  Targets were missed, foreign currency reserves fell and the risk arose of defaulting on contracts.  The central state struggled to regain control while “chaos” reigned in Chinese ports causing “crippling” delays. (page 145)

Japanese business and others started to complain about Chinese price “dumping”, pirating of designs and copying of Western patents.  Other South-East Asian countries complained of special financial inducements, while China encouraged ethnic Chinese in these countries to boycott Japanese goods, although British diplomats in a number of them reported scant evidence of this happening.

At the same time relations with the Soviet Union started to fall apart and China launched an artillery attack on the Nationalist Kuomintang-occupied Island of Jinmen.  For Mao this was part of the effort to rally the people to the demands of the Great Leap Forward.

Zhou Enlai again intervened to support the organisation of the work of the Ministry of Foreign Trade, including to ensure contracts with foreign capitalist were honoured.  At a meeting of staff he told them that “[we would] rather ourselves not eat or eat less, not use or use less, and fulfil the contracts already signed.” (page 149). The Ministry had for years been aware of the need to defend China’s credit rating and Zhou was concerned that dumping was affecting relations with capitalist countries, including India, which was concerned about “dumping” of cotton on the market.

Zhou acknowledged that international trade with capitalists was a form of class struggle, ‘but China could not afford to struggle blindly.’  The Ministry had to differentiate between different capitalists in order to serve China’s diplomatic objectives and avoid behaviour that would undercut relationships. (page 150).

Zhou emphasised the political purpose of trade but the Ministry was caught between the demands of the Great Leap Forward (GLF) and commercial requirements.  He repeated the mantras of zili gengsheng (revival through one’s own efforts) and repudiated the concept of shangzhan (“commercial war”), emphasising heping jingji (“peaceful economics”. (Page 152) ‘“The Great Leap Forward must also accord with objective realties”, he said. “Foreign trade cannot jump 40–50 percent all at once,” he told ministry officials.’ (page 152).

Unfortunately, ‘Zhou’s call for a more moderate trade policy in late 1958 proved too nuanced for the brute force of the GLF’.  New, more modest, targets for exports and imports were set but ‘still exceeded the actual 1958 values by 19 percent and 3 percent respectively.’

Inevitably contracts were not fulfilled.  Like the other aspects of the GLF, ‘the situation became absurd.  Regions without a single walnut tree had been ordered to harvest the nuts for export.’ (page 153). The demands of the GLF for “more, faster, better, more economical” continued into the new decade.

The state failed to meet its grain target but exceeded its export targets as the last-ditch efforts of the Ministry of Foreign Trade to do so were successful.  Food stocks declined precipitously in 1959 and early 1960 and a crisis was imminent: ‘people were already starving in some places.  The bottom was falling out of the Great Leap Forward.’ (page 158)

Relations with the Soviet Union finally collapsed and the Ministry of Trade had nowhere to turn except the capitalist world for the imports necessary for modernisation and the grain necessary to save lives in the famine.  The Maoist regime was led to discover that Soviet “revisionism” was worse than US imperialism.  One task considered an immediate priority was consequently taken to be wiping out the debt to the ‘socialist countries’, necessary in order to defend China’s “international reputation” (guoji shang de shengyu).

The Chinese state struggled to procure the grain necessary to avoid greater catastrophe, especially while trying to keep the famine a secret. Billed as a great step forward to socialism, and while denouncing “revisionism”, the Great Leap Forward precipitated the requirement for grain imports from the capitalist world throughout the first half of the 1960s. (Although the degree to which other factors were responsible is controversial).  It compelled compromising on the principle of avoiding capitalist debt, which up to then had had the effect of limiting China’s fuller entry into the world capitalist market.

The necessity to regularly import grain from the capitalist world, and maximise exports to it in order to earn the foreign currency to pay for the grain, while husbanding its reserves, meant that foreign trade could no longer be ‘tightly scripted, discrete transactions conducted at arm’s length’. Jason Kelly states that ‘It presaged a much more consequential shift in China’s relationship to the global economy that would occur during Reform and Opening.’(page 176)

Trade then increased, first with Japan, then with Western Europe, so that trade with the capitalist world that had been 18 per cent of the total in 1955 reached 70 per cent by volume in 1964. The CCP also moved away from the Great Leap Forward, Zhou Enlai telling the National People’s Congress in 1962 that ‘“blindness” (mangmuxing) to objective laws had marred China’s socialist construction.’ (page 184)

China was, however, about to go through another tumultuous upheaval before learning the same lesson again. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), of which the late socialist Neil Davidson said ‘every word was a lie’, launched an antibureaucratic campaign against potential capitalist restoration that included familiar target such as ‘bourgeois specialists’ and ‘venerable masters’.

Launched by a section of the CCP bureaucracy it was ended by same, although in-between it witnessed mass assaults on the state apparatus, so that its origin eventually allowed for the manner of its ending.  The Cultural Revolution hit China’s trade but the “figures seem mild in relation to the chaos . . . These were significant declines, but not catastrophic” and “were not caused solely by the Cultural Revolution.” (page 189)

These developments, including skirmishes with the Soviet Union from 1967 but more seriously in 1969, led to rapprochement with the United States.  The logic of socialism in one country, the unity of the Communist – more accurately Stalinist – World, took a giant step towards its ultimate conclusion. China’s planners thus forecast a significant increase in trade with the capitalist world in the fourth Five-Year Plan (1971–1975), including import of whole plant equipment, and later for thousands of foreign workers to come to work in the country.

Many of these developments to closer ties with the capitalist world, and without all the talk about it undermining that world, preceded the changes introduced by Deng Xiaoping, who until 1973 was repairing tractor parts in Jiangxi Province following his purge.  The following years saw the post-Mao leadership of Hua Guofeng launch an even larger, too large as it turned out, import programme, while other CCP leaders worried that China was embracing capitalist markets ‘too enthusiastically.’ (page 208)

Deng Xiaoping, speaking to Party officials in 1978, sums up the history presented in the book: “when Comrade Mao Zedong was alive, we also wanted to expand economic and technological exchanges between China and the outside world, including developing economic and trade relations with some capitalist nations, and even the introduction [into China] of foreign capital, joint ventures, etc.” (page 209).

The book chronicles the early history of one aspect of China’s relationship with capitalism and illustrates incidentally the Marxist understanding of the necessary preconditions for the achievement of socialism and the inevitable failure of trying to leap over them or seeking to achieve this goal in a single country.  The book is, of course, not written from a Marxist perspective and given the size and importance of China, and its rich history over the last 70 or so years, it can be no more than a partial history. It is nevertheless very interesting for its exploration of one aspect of China’s less recent economic development.

Some books I read in 2021 (1) – ‘Red Globalisation’

‘Red Globalisation: The political economy of the Soviet Cold War from Stalin to Krushchev’, Oscar Sanchez-Sibony, Cambridge University Press, 2014

Despite the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc the politics of Stalinism lives on, infecting even those who declare their politics to be its historic left opposition.  This politics is summed up in the idea of the possibility of establishing socialism in one country.  

For example, there is no basis for left support for Brexit other than the possibility of taking otherwise prohibitive steps towards socialism on a purely national basis.  Such a view of this left case is supported by its argument that the EU prevents the implementation of state ownership, which, when combined with nationalism, is termed nationalisation and is considered more or less synonymous with socialism.

Since neither state ownership or nationalism expresses specifically working class interests or its powers to assert them, they do not at all define socialism.  Despite its demise the example of the Soviet Union continues to be been held up as embodying socialism, based on its definition as state ownership, and moreover this achievement in one country, so justifying nationalism.

The book ‘Red Globalisation’ argues that the Soviet Union, far from being an economic construct separate from the world capitalist economy, was intrinsically enmeshed within it as a middle-income country, very much subject to the forces shaping that world economy.  This can be seen not only in its autarky in the 1930s but also in its own particular globalisation after the Second World War.

To forestall any presumption that the book can be employed to make the case that the Soviet Union was some sort of capitalism, it simply confirms that socialism can be international or not at all.  The book argues that ‘as is usual in large countries, trade did not play much of a role in the Soviet Union’s economic growth at this time; in this almost purely domestic achievement, coercion and surveillance were everything, and these only started to be undermined by Krushchev’s reforms late in the 1950s.’ (page 122). It should also be noted that this reviewer would not agree to the assessment that the domestic achievements of the Soviet Union could be put down solely to repression.

After the early years of the revolution, far from disengaging from the capitalist world, Sanchez-Sibony argues that from the industrialisation debate in the 1920s onwards there was widespread agreement on the necessity of links with the foreign capitalist market, and all the steps considered necessary to ensure that this would succeed, including following ‘the liberal prescription of gold standard orthodoxy, namely austerity.’ (page 36-7).

The pressure experienced on new regime’s currency and gold reserves ‘threatened the credibility of the state’s commitment to monetary stability both domestically and abroad . . .  possible exclusion from international capital markets . . . was not countenanced until it became inevitable . . .‘ (page 37).  Sanchez-Sibony notes that the ‘NEP had been designed precisely to take advantage of the coming global expansion; what the Bolsheviks got instead was the full measure of the world economy’s 1920s fluctuations.’ (page 45)

While one response to these was monetary expansion, this only resulted in inflation and a plummeting value of the currency, leading to increased exertion and coercion.  Remaining creditworthy became ‘a bit of an obsession, particularly for Stalin, who would prove quite willing to implement whatever policies were needed to achieve this purpose, both in the 1930s and after World War II, even if it compounded times of starvation.’ (page 47).

So, while the first five-year plan envisaged foreign trade as one of the most rapidly growing sectors, the Great Depression led to a reduction in credit and then of trade, with internal crises leading to a turn to what was called ‘import substitution’ but was in fact import deprivation – reduced imports did not lead to increased domestic production.

It therefore became a case of attempting to make a virtue out of necessity rather than any ‘discourse on the desirability of economic independence.’ (page 52). Cuts to imports to one-third of their 1931 value kept the Soviet Union solvent in 1933 while austerity allowed it to pay off its debt by 1935 – ‘the surprise was that the Soviet Union, unlike many economically emerging countries during those years, did not default on its debt, preferring to starve the Soviet population instead . . .’ (page 53) This included, by the way, paying Adolf Hitler the debt accrued to Germany in gold ingots in the mid-1930s.

All this did not result in any particularly autarkic economy by world standards; while exports by value fell by half between 1931 and 1934, by volume they fell by 28 percent, still 18 percent above the 1929 level, while world trade had reduced by 20 percent.

Sanchez-Sibony acknowledges that ‘trade did not revive much thereafter’, explaining this by the preparations for war making import dependence ‘a foolhardy proposition’ or ‘perhaps’ Soviet leaders coming to believe their ‘own propaganda on the virtues of economic independence’, which seems rather unlikely given their prior and later history.  He argues that imports of equipment became less critical than they had been at the beginning of industrialisation while the requirement  for industrial materials increased and the import of military technology became a priority. (page 55)

He states that during this period ‘the soviets continued to be dictated terms by the world economy against their plans and best interests’ and speculates whether both the role of Stalin and the course of Soviet history might have been different ‘had the Soviet state developed in a globalising, inflationary world economy more akin to the triumph of the 1950s rather than the disaster of the interwar period?’ (page 56)

Following the war, the settlement in Eastern Europe ‘presented the Soviets with their first opportunity ever to trade with other countries without overwhelming economic or political complications.  It was telling that they seized the opportunity; it heralded the explosion to come.’ (page 70) See graph below:

Foreign Trade turnover by Region (millions 1961 rubles) [from ‘Red Globalisation]

This however did not entail a decoupling from the world capitalist system.  Referencing the new Bretton Woods system in the West, Sanchez-Sibony writes that ‘the Soviet Union, along with its CMEA [Council for Mutual Economic Assistance] partners, remained appendages to the much larger and dominant liberal construct.’ (page 73)

He recalls one ‘small episode’ that ‘best captures the nature of power relations in the new liberal order the Soviets encountered against their best predictions.’  This involved Soviet fears for the security of their ‘meagre’ reserves, more than two-thirds of which lay in American banks and almost half of which was already committed to importing rubber, that they thought might be safer if they were deposited in European banks. (page 73)

The Soviet Union remained committed to engagement with world capitalism, in what they called the “international division of labour”, resisting defaulting on their war debts in order to defend their credit within ‘the liberal financial architecture of the postwar period.’ (page 74). 

The shortage of dollars was a problem for the Soviets as it was for everyone else and they often employed barter arrangements to avoid currency requirements. They could, however, ‘only watch from the sidelines and rage about the subversive American influence’ as the latter led the reconstruction of a functioning capitalist system in Europe through Marshall Plan funding and the European Payments Union, which facilitated commercial and financial transactions among the West European countries.

The Americans became a real barrier to economic relations with other capitalist powers, which only loosened as these reduced their dependence on the US.  Even so, the Soviet economy began to grow quickly during the 1950s with foreign trade expanding at an even faster rate, the vast proportion with the other Stalinist states.  The weight of trade with developing countries also grew along with the process of decolonisation although it soon reached a  plateau, while trade with the West continued to grow ‘unrelentingly’, with the Soviet Union especially keen for access to Western technology, which was exchanged for raw materials such as oil and timber. 

Ironically Sanchez-Sibony argues that ‘the Soviet Union’s inherently weak position in international politics’ was exploited by both its East European allies, whose provision of low quality goods was subsidised, and other ‘alleged allies in the developing world.’ (page 95)  

In 1958 the Soviet Union was declaring that “in the future we will not relax our efforts to normalise and expand trade and economic relations with capitalist countries,” which year was also the beginning of large net imports of machinery from the West. (pages 107-8). About the same time Soviet leaders started to become preoccupied with repeated complaints by customers about the quality of Soviet exports.  These even included issues with their exports of raw materials, such as unseasoned timber, and coal and chromium ‘riddled with too many impurities.’ (p 116) 

Nevertheless, statistics for foreign trade showed that it increased from 12 percent of national income in 1960, to 21 per cent in 1975 and to 27 per cent in 1980; levels comparable to that of Japan.  In fact, Sanchez-Sibony claims that ‘the Soviet Union throughout the postwar era was more sensitive to changes in the world economy than other large countries such as the United States, Brazil, India, and by the late 1970s, even Japan.’ (page 5).

Far from it advancing beyond capitalism however its trade with Western Europe spoke of the reverse – ‘whereas in 1955, manufactured goods made up 28 percent of Soviet exports to Western Europe, in 1983 the figure was 6 percent.  In the mid 1980s, some three-fourths of their exports to the developed countries consisted of oil, gas, and gold.’ (page 19)

He records the fate of eight Ilyushin IL-18 airplanes sold to Ghana in the early 1960s.  Only four worked regularly, only clocking up fifteen hours each month on average, while a single British Bristol Britannia was flying 113 hours a month and required less repairs.

The Soviet Union’s trade with newly independent nations involved ‘no great Communist crusade’, and a good part of ‘Red Globalisation‘ details the commercial considerations on both sides and the absence of ideological considerations, whatever pretence was sometimes made.  For the Soviet Union ‘the main motivations . . . were political goodwill and the alleviation of western pressure on both the Soviet Union and its economic partners.’ (page 251)

He records the visit of Indian businessmen to the Soviet Union in 1954 to what were presented as the country’s most modern ‘flagship’ factories, such as Moscow’s “Stalin” car factory, and the “Red Proletariat” machine-building factory.

The report back by the businessmen to its government noted that they thought the factories ‘rather dilapidated’, housed in ‘neglected buildings’ and with ‘machinery suffering from widespread disrepair’.  They were unimpressed by the quality of output and productivity and the factory manager’s lack of concern for quality.  The ‘airplanes were chronically late’, the trams were ‘too full’, and the hotels outside Moscow and Leningrad ‘were badly made and unsanitary’, although the ‘people seemed content and children in particular looked healthy and well taken care of.’

They concluded that ‘there was little in the way of technology and industrial equipment in the Soviet Union that could not be bought somewhere else, and moreover have it be of better quality.’ (pages 162-3)

More trade with the West was thus not going to be the answer to the question of economic development while exports were uncompetitive.  In any case, as we have seen, trade with the West did increase and the Soviet Union still collapsed.  Even without autarky or the constraints on trade imposed, especially by the United States, the Soviet Union could not constitute a society with greater productivity than Western capitalism.

’Opening-up’ was not in itself an answer.  Trade with the West did not negate the problems imposed by the Stalinist policy of ‘socialism in one country’, which could not survive even with the benefit of massive oil price increases in the 1970s, of which the Soviet Union was a great beneficiary.

‘Red Globalisation’ is not a particularly long book so it could not be comprehensive. It has also been criticised by some academics for relying on a rather narrow range of archival material that avoids the documentation that would reveal the (supposedly aggressively anti-capitalist) ideological and political motives of the Soviet Union, as opposed to the portrayal by Sanchez-Sibony that it was overwhelmingly economic considerations that drove trade and economic policy.

They advance this argument by noting the original Bolshevik repudiation of the Tsarist debt and particularly the state monopoly of trade.  These, they say, demonstrate the mainly ideological character of Soviet policy.  This however misses the point, or rather several.

As Sanchez-Sibony himself argues, the choice of economic policy was itself ideological, which for Marxists derived from Stalinism’s commitment to a policy of socialism in one country.  The commitment to a state monopoly of trade was simply a reflection of the non-capitalist character of the Soviet Union, while the early Bolshevik repudiation of Tsarist debt reflects, among other things, the revolutionary character of the Soviet regime at that early point of the revolution. 

Sanchez-Sibony’s book is mainly concerned to show that the Soviet Union was not an autonomous autarky but that ‘the world economy quickly slotted the country within its economic and technological hierarchy.’ (page 247). This failure has been registered by much of the Left but not assimilated.  The majority of workers consider its experiment a failure, while the determination of much of the left not to learn from it also signals its determination to continue to own that failure.